Even before I knew I was colour-blind I was aware that there were things I simply couldn’t see. I never knew the significance of the deficit, but I was all too aware of the privation associated with it.
When I was very young and living in the country, my friends and I would bicycle along the dirt roads on our way to the swimming hole—eight inches of water below the bridge—or the dump—with its magic of propane canisters blowing in the fires and the village of debris that others had thrown away. In late June, when the sun was nearly at its fiercest, and while black fly season was over but mosquito season in full force, my friends would suddenly exclaim and then leap from their bicycles for the sandy side of the road where, theoretically, wild strawberries could be found.
While they greedily plucked and smacked, I looked in vain for the berries. I wasn’t inclined to be innately suspicious, but if I were, I would have suspected a trick. As I have often proclaimed about swimming, that if I hadn’t seen it done before my eyes I’m not sure I would believe it was possible, was similar for the berries. I watched their hands and mouths redden with proof, and had to admit that they were finding something.
For my own part, I seemed to be perennially at the wrong patch, for wherever I looked, amongst the serrated green leaves that proclaimed the plant, I could never find the berries themselves. I would marvel at their ability to find berries where I saw nothing, but thought little about it except to wail at the unfairness of my luck.
I would dutifully squat on the sand and push leaves aside, hoping to find the richly red berries they were supposedly hiding. By times, after five minutes of systematic hunting, I would find a berry and its sweetness would be everything that I imagined, but I never managed a handful, and rarely more than a few. After twenty minutes or so my friends would announce the spot exhausted and we would clamber back on our bikes leaving behind us—in their eyes—a vanquished foe, although for me I only saw the same waving leaves beside the roadside, their berries just as hidden in my friend’s stomachs as they had been amongst the leaves.
Years later, when I first realized that I was colour-blind and that not every child read the colours of the crayons when they were colouring, I learned to ignore strawberry plants. I could find black berries easily enough, their vicious spikes clinging while I reached for the puffs of flavour around the hard seeds, and blue berries, the low bushes by times heavy with dusky blue gems. I could even find huckleberries, although I never tried to confirm that I’d been told the correct name, with its raspberry style berry on the long runners and notched leaves that covered the ground with leaves and an occasional sweet. Raspberries were also relatively easy to find, although I still think my childhood friends were better at locating them in the green shadow of their canopy.
By the time I was an adult I’d spent hours in the clearcuts and along the edge of fields finding the pendulous raspberry, hanging below the plant and it only took leaning over to find. Colour wasn’t a problem when the berries were large, could be glimpsed against the lighter green of the sun streaming through the leaves, and could even be felt, when it grew too dark to find them by sight.
Other produce of the woods, the red apples hidden in abandoned orchards, were highlighted by their greener cousins hanging on nearby branches. Pin cherries were easy enough to find, hanging high in the black cherry tree, and their ripeness could be confirmed by taste if their carnelian gleam were not clear enough. Bird cherries and choke cherries were dark red as well when ripe, but they grew in clumps. Hazelnets were easily distinguished by their two part assembly hanging below the cluster of bushes which spiked upward to the sun. Only strawberries eluded me, and that for many years.
Once when my nephew was visiting my cabin we went on a walk along the creek to the bridge a kilometre or so upstream. There, as we ascended the logging road that served the bridge, or had the bridge serve, he cried out for strawberries and went rooting along the bank. I followed him reluctantly, remembering the many vain searches which lay in my past, and as if to confirm the past defines the future, I found only a few where he found handfuls.
I was walking in the opposite direction along the same creek yesterday when I saw, while I looked for possible raspberries although it’s too early for them to be out, straw berry bushes along the gravel bar that came into being five years ago with the washed out beaver dam. I glanced only cursorily at the plants, but for the first time, as if to invalidate decades of experience, I could see the berries. Even while I stooped to eat, I noted how the plants were not competing with any other ground cover, not even grasses, so therefore grew nearly in the open. They are a sparse enough plant that I could look past the leaves and see, outlined against the bright gravel and sand, the berries themselves. As well, it is either a rich habitat for the berry plants, or the season is particularly apt, but whatever the reason I was soon biting off stems and spitting out seeds just as readily as my friends had done nearly half a century ago.
I crouched along the river bank, moving from patch to patch, marvelling that wild strawberries did exist after all, and that my youth hadn’t been a cruel trick, at least in terms of wild strawberries. Swatting away the mosquitoes who also couldn’t believe their luck, both of us treated to a rare feast along the bank of the creek, I ate berries until the patch was much diminished, if not exhausted. Finally, I straightened up, and waded across the creek to continue my trek, the berries behind me luminous with delayed gratification, my hands and mouth stained red and my teeth crunching on tiny seeds.